Is the Noid really the villain this time? Or is he the true hero we all need?
Crime pays. We all tell ourselves it doesn’t, and try to suppress our desire to stand up to The Man. Games like Grand Theft Auto let us release our frustrations on a smarmy world with no respect for the common human, but for those of us who want a cheekier and less spiteful take on the criminal underworld, there’s Yakuza. Yakuza 0 is the first PS4 release to come overseas in the long running franchise that started on PS2, and as the series’ first mainline prequel, you can easily get caught up with Kiryu’s story from here.
Yakuza 0 takes place in 1988, starring Kiryu as an up-and-coming Yakuza goon years before he became the man of power he is in future games. After a loan collection goes bad, Kiryu is stripped of his rank and forced to attempt a new life as a civilian. This quickly ends as he gets wrapped up in a battle over an empty lot in the middle of town between his ex-family and a real estate company. The other character, fan favorite Goro Majima, charts his own path towards regaining Yakuza glory after getting kicked out of his family for refusing to perform a hit. Each character has their own open world to explore, with Kiryu haunting the familiar Kamurocho area and Majima traveling around Sotenbori streets. Both places have varied layouts, and offer everything you’d expect from a Yakuza open world.
In general, Yakuza’s writing is top notch. I wouldn’t call it great storytelling in a typical sense, but the constant twists, harrowing ordeals, and hilarious character interactions hold your attention better than a lot of games on the market. It’s genuinely impressive that a game about angry criminals can also have such heart and joy at its core, but the Yakuza franchise often wears these sentiments on its sleeve, and 0 is no different. Most of the best writing is in the side missions, such as an early mission where Kiryu teaches a punk band how to actually be hardcore because they’re really a bunch of softies. Instead of just telling them to man up, Kiryu helps the band retain their character while still keeping the ruse up, having the trio play up their real personalities in overblown ways. It’s funny, but it’s also heartwarming, and it highlights what makes Yakuza great.
The basic gameplay loop of Yakuza is simple: you cart Kiryu and Majima to different locations, fighting enemies both along the way and at your destination. Our heroes are often beset by random angry mobs, and this is kept from getting stale with a new function that allows you to cycle through three unique battle styles, including a beast-mode for Kiryu and a breakdancing style for Majima. In previous games, having multiple character routes helped spice up the combat, but with a smaller character roster this time around, Sega had to improvise, and they pulled it off well. New moves and abilities are unlocked in a skill tree, but instead of leveling up and allocating experience orbs like in previous games, you must dip into your stash of yen to pay for your upgrades.
Thankfully, making money is easy in Yakuza 0. Not only do the random thugs you fight on the streets drop yen, but both Kiryu and Majima can make cold hard cash from their various business ventures. Kiryu helps run a real estate agency after getting mixed up with the battle over the Empty Lot, and Majima manages a cabaret assigned to him by his estranged Yakuza family. Both are set up as mini-games, with the agency presented as a sort of Tycoon investment minigame and the cabaret an evolution of the hostess club side game from Yakuza 5. Both are fun diversions, with Kiryu’s in particular rewarding you for interacting with the world around you. If you help people, they’ll want to join your agency as either real estate agents or security.
Money isn’t the only reward you get for exploring the bustling Kamurocho streets. Minigames such as bowling, disco dancing, and of course, Sega arcades, scatter the world. The lame-o side of me adores that you can play Space Harrier and Out Run, but there are also UFO catchers that let you win Opa Opa plushies! Thanks to a new friendship system, meeting new people around town is much more rewarding. Once you solve someone’s problem, they may assist you in some way, usually with a real estate job for Kiryu or weapons for Majima. One drawback to how rich you get in this game is Mr. Shakedown, an incredibly powerful foe that, when he defeats you, steals all of your money. You can buy items to make him steal less from you and it’s possible to avoid him, but it’s very frustrating to have to take a new route around town just so you don’t go broke.
Yakuza 0 is a fantastic open world game with plenty of fun distractions and a unique style. If you’re interested in seeing Japanese gangsters act like goofballs for hours on end, I can’t recommend it enough. There’s absolutely nothing else out there like Yakuza, and 0 is the best version of it so far. Sure, the base gameplay is simple, but that’s not what Yakuza is here for. It’s here to give you a place to experience weird happenings, and those events are here in spades.